## Wednesday, October 17, 2007

### Do Better Teams Finish First?

The answer to the title question might seem obvious. But it is not.

For reasons I discuss here, here, and here, post-season play is of no account when it comes to assessing a baseball team's quality. The acid test of quality is the ability to finish first at the end of a regular season's play. The acid test of quality over the long haul is the ability to amass first-place finishes, measured in terms of first-place finishes per season.

But what about quality as measured by the proportion of games won by a franchise over the long haul? Is there a good correlation between that overall record and the number of first-place finishes garnered per season of play? I will here answer that question -- and question some of the answers -- with a look at the American League.

Before plunging into the numbers, I must note that value of a first-place finish has fluctuated, given expansion and, then, divisional play. A first-place finish in the years before expansion, when the AL had 8 teams, ought to count for more than, say, a first-place finish in the AL West since it became a 4-team circuit.

Accordingly, I value first-place finishes according to the number of teams competing for first place in the league (before divisional play) and in a division (from the onset of divisional play). I use the number of original teams (8) to index the value of each first-place finish. Thus:
1901-1960 (8 teams, no divisions) -- 8/8 = 1.000
1961-1968 (10 teams, no divisions) -- 10/8 = 1.250
1969-1976 (6 teams in each of 2 divisions) -- 6/8 = 0.750
1977-1993 (7 teams in each of 2 divisions) -- 7/8 = 0.875
1994-2007, AL East (5 teams) -- 5/8 = 0.625
1994-2007, AL Central (5 teams) -- 5/8 = 0.625
1994-2007, AL West (4 teams) -- 4/8 = 0.500
Drawing on statistics available at Baseball-Reference.com, I derived for each AL franchise its overall record and number of weighted first-place finishes per season:

 Franchise Record 1st/season Devil Rays 0.399 0.000 Rangers 0.468 0.043 Mariners 0.473 0.048 Orioles 0.476 0.078 Twins 0.481 0.082 Brewers 0.482 0.030 Athletics 0.486 0.179 Royals 0.487 0.131 Angels 0.491 0.088 Blue Jays 0.496 0.141 White Sox 0.505 0.092 Tigers 0.506 0.100 Indians 0.511 0.069 Red Sox 0.516 0.120 Yankees 0.567 0.375

I then regressed first-place finishes per season against overall record, including only those teams with any first-place finishes. (In other words, I omitted the hapless and perhaps hopeless Devil Rays; the Brewers, late of the AL, escaped oblivion only by dint of their 1982 division title.) The result:

The gray lines bound the standard error of the regression and highlight the outliers: the Athletics and Yankees on the high side, the Indians on the low side. (The plot points, going from left to right, correspond with the franchises listed in the table above, reading downward from Rangers through Yankees.)

Inspection of the graph suggests at least three questions:
1. Who has fared better, original teams or expansion teams?
2. Why have the A's outshone the Indians?
3. With the Yankees out of the picture, would there still be a positive relationship between overall record and first-place finishes?
4. Which is more important, overall record or frequency of first-place finishes?
A 1. The expansion teams -- on the whole and even including the Devil Rays -- have slightly outperformed the original teams.

A 2. The Indians have been more consistent, with fewer highs and lows than the A's. The A's more frequent highs have enabled them to garner more first-place finishes than the Indians. The A's more frequent lows, of course, don't count against them when it comes to tallying first-place finishes. Graphically:

A 3. By taking the Yankees out of the picture, I get this:

There's still a positive relationship between overall record and first-place finishes, albeit a weaker one. However, if the Yankees did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. Oops, I mean that if there had been no Yankees franchise, the White Sox, Tigers, and Red Sox (especially the Red Sox) would have had more first-place finishes. (The Indians might have had more, as well.) That is to say, there would be a stronger positive relationship than the one depicted immediately above.

A4. Frequency of first place finishes is more important than overall record. A winning record -- as in the case of the Indians, with the third-best overall record in the AL -- means only that a franchise has had more good years than bad ones. Look at the Red Sox, with their second-best overall record and their general frustration at the hands of the Yankees over the years:

Before 1967, the Red Sox' overall record was only 0.499; the Yankees', 0.575. From 1967 through 2007, however, the Yankees played 0.555 ball, as against 0.542 for the Red Sox. The Red Sox, in other words, have become a much stronger team -- almost as strong as the Yankees. And the graph shows it. But from 1967 through 2007 the Yankees earned 16 league/division titles to 7 for the Red Sox. (Har, har!)

Finishing first is the measure of a team's quality, regardless of the team's fate in post-season play.

Note to baseball purists: I write 0.xxx instead of .xxx because I am a purist when it comes to style. I follow A Manual of Style, published by The University of Chicago Press (twelfth edition, revised, section 13.13).